Monday, 8 February 2016

TV REVIEW: The X-Files - My Struggle

This review contains spoilers...

Opening with a Mulder exposition of his own personal obsession and the history of alien conspiracy theories, the My Struggle once again asks the question of "are we truly alone?" Coupled with the unchanged opening credit sequence, it is a glorious statement of intent; it's a continuation of the story that we loved (and that infuriated us) with the characters we fell in love with. Mulder and Scully are separated and pursuing their own lives, but are dragged back in by an online talking head, Tad O'Malley, a conservative conspiracy nut who also happens to be a Mulder-Scully fanboy. As they begin to investigate, it appears that they're amongst something far bigger and more dangerous than they ever expected. Again.

The length of time since the end of the series and the last movie, I Want to Believe, is a big one, so it's natural that there's some strangeness to the relationships. They've shifted and changed, but the episode seems torn as to whether it wants to brave that rockiness or not. It's a new pilot episode, re-establishing the mythos, the relationships and the world in which it all operates, but in doing so, it's trying to do too much. In both trying to emphasise that displacement and trying to make the episode run as smoothly as possible, Carter creates something mightily uneven.

The scene with Mulder and Skinner in the old X Files office is the best example of this alongside the clash between Scully and Mulder on his porch; it's thudding exposition set-up for the new story whilst trying to recall the past. The personalities and the relationships should be enough, but Carter doesn't seem to have enough confidence that we all remember how these patterns work. A character shouldn't need to say "the truth is out there" for us to know that Mulder still wants to believe. 

A lot of the episode naturally gets by just through the sheer thrill of seeing Mulder and Scully back on screen together. Duchovny and Anderson slot back into their roles with ease, like pulling on a slightly irritating jumper and a sharp power suit respectively. Duchovny's sardonic humour is the same as ever, delivered with the lazy charm that he's made his own over the years, whilst Anderson starts utilising her full range of reaction faces almost immediately. Her expression after being mansplained by O'Malley was everything. The pair's chemistry is instantly present and correct too and though the episode is a little clunky in its explanations of their history between I Want to Believe and the present day, there's a weight to their every interaction that conveys a lot.

What it does to the mythology is a brave move and a pretty clever one too, utilising a War on Terror, post-Snowden/Wikileaks world to tap back into the atmosphere of distrust and paranoia that the series initially thrived on. As O'Malley and Mulder explain to Scully how it all fits together, the episode suddenly takes off and everything slots into place. It re-energises a mythology famously impossible to follow (I'm not sure we'll ever straighten everything out) and provides the new fight, the new struggle that brings Mulder and Scully back together. It's a big mess, of course, but what would The X-Files be with sense? 

The final scene with the infamous Cigarette Smoking Man (replete with the effects of his eponymous habit) is a cracking slice of dark humour to end My Struggle with. It's another echo of its pilot episode, but handled with more deftness than the rest of the episode combined. It's that scene that gives me hope for the rest of the series. The awkward reintroduction is now out of the way, we can get down to trusting no one.

- Becky

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Saturday, 30 January 2016

FEATURE: Angel - Somnambulist

Previously on Angel: Angel is still haunted by the crimes he committed in his alter-ego state as the infamous vampire, Angelus. Wesley is now residing in LA after he was fired from the Watcher's Council and wishes to help out with Angel Investigations.

Angel's having nightmares about draining victims in LA and carving a Christian cross into their left cheek. It turns out that there just happens to be a serial killer doing the exact same thing and Kate is on the case. On his return to the office, Wesley notices the connection between the serial killer's modus operandi and that of the seventeenth century Angelus. Angel's spotted it too and upon realising that Angel is somehow committing the crimes in his sleep, they realise that it's the work of a vampire he sired back in the day, keen to relive their life of murderous crime together. With Kate on the case too, it's not long before she discovers the truth about Angel.

I feel like there needs to be some kind of health warning in any episodes where Angelus' Irish accent is deployed. Doubly so for this episode when Jeremy Renner is acting English. It's not quite on the Keanu Reeves in Dracula end of the Bad Accent spectrum, or indeed Angelus', but it's thankfully brief at its most potent and weirdly Transatlantic for the rest of the episode. He's a decent guest star, but nothing memorable, mainly because he's playing a caricature of Angelus, rather than a character of his own, which is kind of the point. I also like that he had no idea about Angel's curse, which suggests he was a pet project of Angelus' outside of the central crew of Darla, Drusilla and the Master, suffering an inferiority complex forever as a result.

After Parting Gifts, this episode becomes a reaffirmation of the show's structure. There's no mention of Doyle and the focus moves away from the team and back in on Angel himself. It's a key episode in terms of his relationship with Kate, transforming their relationship entirely now that she knows the truth. That's the big plot development here, but the episode suffers from treading over old ground too much in order to move the show on from the fairly big change that resulted from Doyle's death.

There have been a lot of references to Angelus throughout this series and in Angel's appearance on sister show Buffy in Amends when everyone keeps asking if he's evil again. There's a nice reminder of it here, not in the flashbacks, but in Kate's profile of the serial killer, overlaid with Angel wandering through LA trying to figure out how to stop Penn. Angelus is something he has to live with and something that becomes increasingly important to his fight across the five seasons of his own show.  But it's the same message we've had again and again throughout the season. 

It's here where the first season shows the cracks in its quality, never really having any thematic resonance beyond that. Even the idea that fuelled a couple of the early episodes, that the monsters of LA were the equivalent to the torment of being an adult, is a retread of the Buffy formula that quickly gets forgotten over the course of the episode. The Shanshu Prophecy is, of course, on the horizon and Wolfram & Hart are lurking in the background, but this is still a show searching for its own identity and not quite succeeding just yet.

Quote of the Week:

Wesley: No sign of any vampire attack... [gets grabbed by Penn] Which is maybe because he's here and has me by the throat. 

Inventive Kill: Kate bags her first vamp, stabbing a huge piece of wood through Angel, missing his heart but impaling Penn's. 

LA Who's Who: I can't not put Jeremy Renner in this little section. Since his brief appearance in Angel, he's gone on to an Oscar nomination, appearing as an Avenger and saying douchey sexist things to the press. So, that's nice. He also goes on to appear alongside Elizabeth Rohm (Kate) in American Hustle, playing husband and wife.

- Becky

You can read Becky's look at previous episode, Parting Gifts, here.

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FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - A New Man

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The group have all been dealing with their own respected adjustments after the destruction of Sunnydale High, some better than others. Willow has made friends with a fellow witch named Tara, Giles is unemployed whilst Spike has discovered that he can still hurt demons, just not humans.

It's Buffy's 19th birthday and Giles isn't coping with it very well feeling a little out of the loop. So badly in fact that he turns into a demon. Though that turns out to be more or less because Ethan Rayne showed back up, got Ripper blind drunk and cast a spell on him. Prior to that, he introduces himself to Maggie Walsh which doesn't go particularly well as she accuses him of not being a suitable male role model for. We all know that's absolute crap. I'm kinda glad she gets skewered. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Whilst Giles is coming to terms with Buffy growing up, dating one of the Initiative commandos and you know, being a demon, Buffy and the gang assume that the demon running round has kidnapped Giles, not realising that it's actually Giles himself until it's nearly too late. We also learn that the demon underworld is a'rumbling with the news of the Initiative and something called 314...

A New Man is one of those episodes that seems to get richer over time, particularly with the knowledge of where everything's going, not only in terms of the fourth season, but beyond too. Focusing in on it first, Giles turning into a demon is a very simple metaphor for his alienation from the group, manifested in some stunning make-up work allowing Anthony Head to give a great comic physical performance. His first few scenes as he gets used to his demonic visage are laugh-out-loud hysterical and later on too, chasing after Professor Walsh, growling at her and running after her down Main Street before getting back into the car with Spike as if nothing had happened. 

I had forgotten how funny Ethan's re-introduction is and indeed, all of the scenes between Ripper and Ethan, a masterclass in comic timing from both the sadly late Robin Sachs and Anthony Head. Ethan's one of Buffy's great antagonist, more memorable in four appearances than most foes get to be over several. Sadly, this is his final moment in the show, but it's an excellent episode to go out on. The drunken scene between him and Head is just brilliant: "Whilst you were in the restroom, I slipped a poison pellet in your drink. You'll be dead in an hour... Just kidding."

Jane Espenson wrote this episode, so obviously it's great and packed full of quotable lines (which makes picking one to highlight with you all an absolute nightmare). Expanding out to the episode's richness beyond just this story, there's a lot of thematic work going on here and plenty of foreshadowing too. Buffy and Giles' relationship will take some bigger knocks in later seasons, but here it proves to be pretty strong, Buffy knowing intuitively that it's him. 

There are also a lot of fault-lines weaving through this episode, mainly through the Scoobies themselves. Willow's lying about her burgeoning relationship with Tara, Buffy's swanning off with Riley all the time, Xander's dating Anya which no-one particularly cares for and Giles is still feeling out of the loop, all of which are ready to be exploited by Spike later on in the season. These ones I remembered. The one I didn't spot? Riley already feeling his masculinity impugned by Buffy's greater strength, skill and authority. It's all there very early on in their relationship, we (and they) just didn't spot it.

Another little cracker of an episode with hilarity, wit and pathos in spades, A New Man is an excellent slice of Buffy doing what Buffy does best, messing with our own knowledge of the characters to further their development. Plus, we don't often get Giles-centric episodes so they're always a joy when they come along, whether it's exploring his Ripper-based past or watching him try and come to terms with change, Anthony Head is marvellous without a doubt.

Quote of the Week:

Maggie Walsh: So, the Slayer?
Buffy: Yep, that's me.
Maggie Walsh: We thought you were a myth.
Buffy: ...Well you were myth-taken.

Inventive Kill: Slight variation on this week as there isn't any killing, but Riley proudly boasts to her of his 17 hostile takedowns. Some nice person over on the Buffy Wikia page for this episode worked out that Buffy has, as a modest estimate, taken down over 100 hostiles up to this point in the series. 106 to be exact, only counting those seen onscreen.

Let's Get Trivial: Anthony Head's previous experience playing Dr Frank N Further in The Rocky Horror Show proved to be invaluable when he had to perform the scene in which he ran after Maggie Walsh because he's extremely comfortable in high heels as a result.

- Becky

You can catch Becky's look at previous episode, Doomed, here.

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Sunday, 27 December 2015

TV REVIEW: Doctor Who - The Husbands of River Song

So, it's the year 5000 and something, it's snowing, River is back and Greg Davies is giving it his all as a disembodied head. It can only be the Doctor Who Christmas special!

Set on an Earth colony three thousand years into the future on which, naturally, it’s Christmas Day, a case of mistaken identity leads The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) to the bed-side of robot King Hydroflax (Greg Davies), who, rather unfortunately for him, has a priceless diamond lodged in his brain. Giving a whole new meaning to the term gold-digger, the King’s wife, half archaeologist half burglar, turns out to be none other than River Song (Alex Kingston). Believing her real husband to be out of regeneration cycles, (reasonably enough given that the last time she saw him, he had indeed run out) she fails to recognise the man behind the new face for the majority of the episode. Cue hilarity and high-jinks.

Definitely a much lighter episode of Who than we’ve seen all series, 'The Husbands of River Song' is never going to be lauded as one of the better episodes of this year, but there’s certainly a case for it being one of the better Christmas specials. It gave Capaldi the chance to flex his comedy muscles once again after the tragic loss of Clara (Jenna Coleman) at the end of Series 9, sharing the screen with The Doctor’s most accomplished verbal sparring partner. Steven Moffat’s dialogue, was positively fizzing, with a particular highlight being the moment The Doctor got to have a turn at the whole ‘it’s bigger on the inside’ gig. 

Despite never being the biggest fan of River Song, even I enjoyed seeing her in a welcome return to form as a self-proclaimed ‘archaeologist from the future.’ Whether this really is the last we’ll see of her remains to be seen, although given the obvious on-screen chemistry between her and Capaldi, I’d be very surprised if that really was her final bow.
The two had decent support from Greg Davies and Matt Lucas, although it was a shame the latter wasn’t given more to do, so well did he slot into the Whoniverse. Visually, there was plenty to look at as we went from a festive human colony, to a luxury cruise ship for war criminals, to the famed Singing Towers of Darillium, meeting a host of new and intriguing life forms en route. The whole diamond heist plot wasn’t particularly inspiring, but in the Christmas context that hardly seemed to matter. 

The narrative kept things simple yet entertaining, exactly what you need when you’re approximately seven eighths full of turkey and roast potatoes.

On the whole, it doesn’t seem these days that Doctor Who can go far wrong. Bring on Series 10, we say.


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Thursday, 10 December 2015

FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Doomed

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Spike has been neutered by the Initiative and can no longer hurt humans, but they are still looking for him before he can reveal any of their secrets. Buffy now knows that Riley is in the Initiative and he discovers her demon-hunting abilities after the pair bumped into each other whilst out in Sunnydale trying to stop the Gentlemen.

Riley and Buffy are still trying to deal with the fallout of finding out each other's secrets when an earthquake rocks Sunnydale. Buffy immediately recognises it as a sign of a potential apocalypse, but Giles isn't convinced. However, when a student is ritually murdered at one of the parties on campus, the gang realise it is the work of a demon cult hell bent on bringing about the apocalypse. Again. As Buffy deals with Riley trying to make their relationship work, she also has to work to stop the demons, but it might be easier if she doesn't have to do it alone.

It's all about going back to high school in this episode of Buffy as Buffy's relationship with Riley hits another bump in the road when she realises he has no idea of what she's faced in her past. There's an apocalypse on the way that just happens to originate on the Hellmouth in the burnt remains of the high school with added Mayor meat, extra crispy. Percy shows up and calls Buffy a nerd and the gang are mobilised to stop the end of the world once again. Like much of the fourth season, it's about moving on and ensuring the Scoobies stay working together, just as they did back in high school.

Most of this comes through in Buffy's character stuff in this episode; her relationship with Riley, now revealed to be a part of the world she inhabits and not, as she believed, separate from it, gives her all sorts of Angel associations and how badly it all went. She also keeps reiterating the point that this fight is hers and hers alone, despite knowing she needs the gang around her to help. It's one of the central conflicts in her character all the way through and I love how it comes out more in the extreme situations. Of course, she can't do it alone and the episode once again proves that by not only having the gang with her, but having Riley come to her rescue and then work in partnership with her to save the world.

Having the big fight go down in the high school is also a clever piece of thematic work that allows everyone to realise how they don't really need to hang on to it anymore. It's smaller and "more charred." It may take Willow, Xander and Giles to the end of the season to realise how they are still needed, but it's a recovery process that starts, at least for Willow and Xander, right her. They're essential parts of the big fight at the end; Xander realises that the demons themselves are the sacrifice and Willow does a good job of getting hold of the bag of bones. Even if Spike undoes it all by throwing them and the second demon into the hole anyway.

It's also a big development for Spike in this episode. Initially seen trying to dust himself with a curious stake-in-a-vice contraption, he's feeling pretty low as a result of his chip implant and Willow's adorable pep talks don't really work. However, during the final fight, he discovers he can actually hit demons whilst implanted; it only restricts violence towards humans. Although Spike won't make the shift into being good entirely until next season, it's the start of the path here. Before then though, he stills gets to be a thorn in the Scoobies' collective side.

It's another strong episode in the season then, though perhaps not as memorable as Hush in its lasting Buffy legacy. Then again, few episodes are. It's one of the episodes focused on the thematics of the ongoing series as well as shedding Sunnydale High School further from the gang's memory. They've moved on and see it for the rotting, hellish institution it always was.

Quote of the Week:

Giles: It's the end of the world.

Buffy, Xander and Willow: Again?!

Let's Get Trivial: The continuity is hilariously all over the place in the Library fight scene; in the background of one shot, Spike has his vamp face, but in the close up straight after it's gone. Try keeping track of the bag of bones too. Nigh on impossible. Also, keep an eye out when the Scoobies are walking through; Catherine Madison's statue is still there...

Sunnydale Who's Who: We find out that Percy, Willow's former Sunnydale High tutee, survived the battle against the Mayor, took his scholarship at USC and is visiting his bitchy girlfriend at UC Sunnydale. He's mean about Willow. Git.

- Becky

You can read Becky's look at previous episode, Hush, here.

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Wednesday, 9 December 2015

TV REVIEW: Doctor Who - Hell Bent

Following Heaven Sent feels like an enormous task; it's one of the best episodes of Who we've had in recent series and it's been one of the best and most consistently good runs in New-Who history so the series finale had quite a bit of work to do. There's lots to like about this episode and there's also a few bits that didn't quite work. As you'd expect, it's all very clever and brilliant in parts and falls into the "I'm not entirely sure what's going on or why now" trap as well.

Hell Bent starts itself of as a kind of space western/space Glasgow as the Doctor strides into a diner where Clara is behind the counter. She doesn't recognise him, but he tells her the story of his return to Gallifrey. It pits the Doctor as some kind of gunslinger returning home with a bounty on his head; "They'll kill you" one of the residents warns him. Capaldi plays the part well throughout the first ten minutes, nearly silent but ever expressive as increasingly higher Gallifreyan ranks come to greet him, only for him to turn away until the person he actually wants to see makes an appearance. It's a High Noon like stand-off and there's even a clever piece of musical comedy as a bell sounds in the score as the Doctor and the President meet.

It then switches up into a horror movie as a time-looped not-dead Clara and the Doctor head into the "Time Lord hell," full of foes neutralised but still very creepy. From the oozing Dalek to the scariest Who creatures ever, the Weeping Angels, the decaying, smoky figures are still pretty creepy and brief glimpses allow them to be used for maximum effect. The production design in the last two episodes have been exemplary, creating worlds that feel tangible but still with that glorious Doctor Who sheen of special effects. Gallifrey looks magnificent.

However, as the episode continues, it becomes more troublesome. As Jen pointed out last week, Heaven Sent afforded us a fairly unique opportunity in Who; to witness the Doctor's grieving process after losing his companion. I love that he works for four and a half billion years to get back to her again and the torture he puts himself through to get to the Time Lords. It's only once he gets Clara back that the episode starts to lose it a bit. 

Face The Raven was a cracking sendoff for Clara. It was reckless, stupid, noble and in the service of others, everything that she has embodied in her role as a companion, particularly over the course of the last series. Hell Bent kind of feels like we've overwritten both of those episodes by having a collaborative grieving process that simply involves the Doctor forgetting, rather than learning from his recurring mania to put himself first every now and again, something we also saw with Ten. 

The evolution of the Doctor and Clara into the Hybrid, ending with one of them forgetting, also felt like a complete retread of the Doctor-Donna, only with the forgetfulness reversed in this instance. For a partnership that's been as wonderful and fairly New Who unique in the Doctor and Clara, it's a shame that their ending feels cribbed from somewhere else. Capaldi and Coleman sell it well and remain true to their iterations right to the end, but it lacked the same emotional weight that Face the Raven had or the trauma of seeing Donna forget everything that had made her so wonderful during her time with the Doctor.

The constant repetition of their goodbyes to each other also felt somewhat staid and the episode falls prey to something Who doesn't tend to do too often; it feels drawn out. The pacing is a little too languid for the story that it's telling and for an audience who already knows that the outcome results in Clara leaving because Jenna Coleman is leaving the series.

There's lots of neat touches elsewhere like the "I had a duty of care" line that sums up Clara and the Doctor's relationship perfectly. The return of the round things ("I love the round things!") is very welcome. There's also the General's regeneration into a woman, once again confirming that Time Lords can switch genders in the regeneration process. He's a sly one is that Moffat. But this doesn't make up for the fact that it feels like a Return of the King style "we're not ready to finish this just yet" ending.

A mixed bag of an episode that starts well but ends a little off, Hell Bent may be towards the more negative end of the quality spectrum for this series, but that's not unexpected, given some of the heights we've reached. We're also promised what could be sheer joy in a Capaldi's Doctor team-up with River Song for the Christmas Special and Jen will be back to review that one for you all. 

- Becky

You can read Jen's review of previous episode, Heaven Sent, here.

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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

FEATURE: Angel - Parting Gifts

Previously on Angel: Angel's friend Doyle was gifted with visions that allowed him to find people in need. However, Doyle has sacrificed himself to save Angel, Cordy and a host of benevolent demons from the Scourge, but not before kissing Cordy and seemingly passing something to her.

Following Doyle's death, both Angel and Cordelia are dealing with his loss in different ways. Angel attempts to bargain with the Oracles in an attempt to get his friend back, citing that he needs Doyle's visions in order to proceed on his quest. They assure him that Doyle's noble death has to stand but that "when one door closes, another one opens." Back at HQ, he's approached by an empath demon named Barney who seems to have a mysterious figure chasing him, a leather-clad motorbike riding figure to be more precise. Angel agrees to help and Barney lies low at the office. Meanwhile, Cordelia is out for an audition when she is hit by a vision and suddenly the Oracles' meaning becomes clear for Angel. 

I used to think of this episode as a bit of a throwaway one in the aftermath of Doyle's passing, one that is designed to introduce Wesley as the new player in the Angel game and move him into place accordingly. On this rewatch though, I realise that's doing this episode a real disservice because it becomes the very embodiment of "don't judge a book by its cover." This is cleverly layered in from the start with Cordelia's appraisal of Doyle's character as a layabout without much worth who then proves it by saving everyone's lives. There's also Barney, an empath demon who can feel beyond the surface emotions everyone is projecting and find the truth in how they are actually feeling.

Of course, it goes further with Barney because he's the episode's bad guy but spends two-thirds of it under Angel's protection, trying to use him to take out the demon hunter chasing him. The demon hunter appears in shadow or in brief close-ups, stalking his prey with what feels like a cruel efficiency. Only to be revealed to be... Wesley. Angel quickly sees through his more macho leather-clad appearance and we're soon back to the nervous, posturing Wesley we're used to. The moment Angel swipes the crossbow out of Wesley's hands is just perfect.

The episode layers these kinds of switcheroos all the way through it. We go from believing the motorbike guy is the story's bad guy through to the Kungai demon looking like that's the foe, only he proves to be just as much of a victim as everyone else. That it's sadsack Barney whose about to harvest Cordelia's eyes is cleverly hidden. It's one of those instalments that constantly keeps you on your toes and is much more than simply re-introducing Wesley to the Buffyverse. We also get another brief glimpse of Wolfram & Hart; one of their lawyers is the final bidder for Cordelia's eyes at the auction. When the auction goes south and Angel arrives, we overhear her phone call and it's clear from her oblique reference to him that Angel remains on their radar. 

I'm not sure many shows handle a regular cast change-up with the adroitness that Angel manages here. The grieving process for Doyle fuels a lot of the episode, but it never holds it back from embracing the new. Cordelia is now having the visions that made Doyle initially vital to the team (even if she doesn't want them badly enough to kiss everyone she comes across in the city) and Wesley is invited to join them by the end of the episode. There's little ceremony here, but Doyle's death was grand enough. Now, the team rebuilds.

Quote of the Week:

Wesley: I'm a rogue demon hunter now.
Cordelia: Wow! What's a 'rogue demon'?

Inventive Kill: Cordy bags her first demon! She staked a vampire back in her Buffy dies but now she can add Barney to her list.

Let's Get Trivial: The Korean scenes are probably not going to win any awards for their authenticity. Angel's Korean is, in fact, gibberish with subtitles whilst the lady nursing the Kungai demon speaks sort of Korean, but with a terrible accent. Soon is the only one in the scene who manages to speak the language.

LA Who's Who: This marks the last appearance of Glenn Quinn in the main credits. Sob.

- Becky

You can read Becky's look at previous episode, Hero, here.

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